1. Full Playoff Schedule
I realised this week that for some dumb reason the WNBA haven’t released this in full, so for those who want to take a leap of faith and start booking flights and hotels really early, here’s the expected 2016 WNBA playoff schedule:
First Round (single-elimination: #5 seed vs #8, and #6 vs #7)
Wednesday, September 21st (both games)
Second Round (single elimination: #3 vs lowest 1st-rnd winner, #4 vs other 1st-rnd winner)
Sunday, September 25th (both games)
Semi-Finals (best-of-5, 2-2-1 format: #1 vs lowest 2nd-rnd winner, #2 vs other 2nd-rnd winner)
(Game 1s) Wednesday, September 28th
(Game 2s) Friday, September 30th
(Game 3s) Sunday, October 2nd
(Game 4s) Tuesday, October 4th (if necessary)
(Game 5s) Thursday, October 6th (if necessary)
WNBA Finals (best-of-5, 2-2-1 format)
(Game 1) Sunday, October 9th
(Game 2) Tuesday, October 11th
(Game 3) Friday, October 14th
(Game 4) Sunday, October 16th (if necessary)
(Game 5) Thursday, October 20th (if necessary)
All weekend games in the afternoon, all weekday games in the evening. Obviously, all subject to potential change due to ESPN’s whims or arena availability.
Those double-headers for the first couple of rounds should be exciting, essentially fast-forwarding to the deciding games that we only got in the past when a series went the distance. Whether it’s fair or not is a different debate, but the entertainment should be there. We’ll also have the inevitable ‘rest vs rust’ debates this year in the WNBA, with the top two seeds having 10 days off before joining the competition at the semi-final stage. At least some of the games should be better attended this year – both thanks to the immediate excitement of single-elimination, and the extra time teams will have to sell tickets for the second round and semis. The hosts will know the dates as soon as the playoff seeding is set, and can start the publicity and sales immediately. Early playoff games have been sparsely attended in previous years because teams only have a couple of days’ notice to draw fans.
2. Dallas’s Dismal Defense
I’m going to get into this in more detail in a future piece, but this is why the Wings aren’t going to go anywhere meaningful this season unless things change dramatically.
This is the first basket of the game on Wednesday night:
There’s a half-hearted switch on the initial 4/5 screen-the-screener action (top-left of video), when Plenette Pierson kinda quits halfway through. Then Courtney Paris jumps out a mile to chase Natasha Cloud while Odyssey Sims tries to recover, before the ball goes back to Emma Meesseman. Here’s where Dallas repeatedly struggle. They like to trap and pressure so hard on ball-screens, but they’re a) not that good at it, and b) terrible at the help rotations necessary behind it. In that video above, both Erin Phillips and Karima Christmas take steps towards Meesseman (showing confusion on whose job it is) and Meesseman takes one dribble away from Phillips into a wide open shot. And that’s better than what Dallas offers up on a lot of similar plays. Often there’s no rotation at all, and Meesseman would’ve just been left standing on her own. Or one player moves but there’s no secondary movement, so one extra pass leads to a wide open shot (or easy lane to the hoop) instead.
The absence of Skylar Diggins (and the nonsense and half-information surrounding it) is drawing all the attention, but even if she came back at 100% tomorrow it’d mostly just improve their offense – which is already decent. It’s not particularly innovative or interesting, and Sims is putting up some hideous numbers so far this season, but they’ve got enough individual talent to score. The real story is that the last time this franchise was ranked above 11th in the WNBA on defense, Bill Laimbeer started the season as their coach and they were playing in Detroit. And they’re still bad. Not quite as bad as in some of those excruciating Tulsa years, but still very much in the ‘bad’ range. They’re not winning anything meaningful until that changes.
3. Colour Clash
You know what having two very different colours as your base uniform allows? Avoiding anything even close to a clash! Soccer (and many other sports) have been managing this for an awfully long time, and the WNBA has made it even easier by not designating one strip as the ‘home’ uniform. So why are we seeing variations on blue vs blue, or the Storm-Liberty game pictured where both teams are officially wearing types of green? I know it’s not exactly hard to tell them apart, but it’s so easy to avoid. New York in their black against Seattle’s yellow would’ve worked fine. Why not wear those?
4. Missing Players
It’s not too bad this year. We don’t have any Americans sitting out for ‘rest’, and thanks to FIBA Europe switching to a series of qualifying windows over the course of the year (rather than taking up virtually every summer) there are no EuroBasket issues to worry about. That’s part of why we’ve seen so many Europeans in the league this season. But there are a few players leaving town for a little while.
Five countries have already qualified for the women’s basketball tournament at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio by winning the various regional tournaments, plus the USA are in as 2014 World Champions, and Brazil as hosts. The remaining five spots will be decided at the qualifying tournament in France from June 13-19. Sancho Lyttle of the Atlanta Dream (Spain) and Lindsey Harding of the New York Liberty (Belarus) will join up with their adopted countries to try to help them qualify, while the main reason Latoya Sanders hasn’t been with the Washington Mystics so far this season is that she’s part of Turkey’s squad.
The four European countries – France, Turkey, Belarus and Spain – are considered the favourites to qualify, probably with China as the likeliest to join them. In WNBA terms, the most interesting effect will be in Atlanta. Lyttle hasn’t scored well this season, but she’s played heavy minutes and led the Dream in rebounding, while playing her usual part in their long-armed defense. Reshanda Gray is the most obvious option to slide in, although Michael Cooper has barely used her in recent games. Cierra Burdick and Rachel Hollivay will also be asked to contribute, and we may see more of Angel McCoughtry sliding over to the 4 in small lineups. Atlanta could also suspend Lyttle and sign a replacement once she’s missed a game, but as she’s only expected to miss four in total that may barely be worth it.
New York changed things up before they necessarily had to, benching Harding before she’d even left and reverting back to a version of the lineup they had success with last year. Tanisha Wright moved back to point guard where she played last season, after starting New York’s previous games in 2016 as an undersized small forward. Swin Cash came back into the starting lineup in that spot, while Sugar Rodgers continues to fill Epiphanny Prince’s role as the scoring option at shooting guard. Exactly how many minutes are available for Harding when she comes back remains to be seen. They were demolished by LA on Tuesday night, but before that the new-old lineup seemed to have improved things. Harding’s inability to shoot is always going to be an issue for a team that already struggles to stretch the floor around Tina Charles.
Talking of Swin Cash…
5. Damn I’m getting old
Cash announced her retirement this week, declaring that this will be her final season as a player. So she joins Lauren Jackson and Tamika Catchings as stars of the women’s game calling it quits this year, and it’s sad to see them go. Cash wasn’t quite at the level of those other two legends, especially once her ACL tear in 2004 slowed her down, but she’s been a key part of teams that won championships at virtually every level, and will be fondly remembered for her heart, desire, and willingness to do whatever her team needed from her to win.
She’s already started her career in the media – and it was a savvy move to announce the retirement in The Players’ Tribune on the day the Liberty played on ESPN – so she’s unlikely to leave our consciousness for long. Plus, given their lack of alternatives with any size at small forward, she still has an important role to play for the Liberty this season.
6. Defensive Decisions in Los Angeles
Remember when I said I’d go on about lineup choices and cross-matching at every opportunity? Well LA have a decision to make in virtually every game with their guards. In basic terms, the Sparks have one good defender and one poor one in their backcourt. Alana Beard, looking the healthiest she has in years, is back to being one of the premier perimeter defenders in the WNBA. Kristi Toliver, well, isn’t. Also, Toliver’s small enough that while LA could cross-match even more drastically and slide Essence Carson over to take a threat while Toliver hides against the opposing small forward, most of the time the 3 will be too big for her.
So LA have to decide: Do they put Beard on the point guard, harassing the primary ballhandler, making it harder to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense? Or do they put her on the shooting guard, who on most WNBA teams is the higher scorer and more dangerous threat to carry the opposing offense?
Most of the time, Brian Agler has chosen to use Beard on the point guard. She’s a better on-ball defender, so Beard is extra-effective, and if you can make it hard for the offense to even get started you disrupt everything, rather than just shutting down one player. But in LA’s two games against San Antonio in the last week, we saw the alternatives. Beard started the first game on Moriah Jefferson, before eventually switching over to Kayla McBride – San Antonio’s best player and primary scoring threat. McBride still led the Stars in scoring, but needed 19 shots for 20 points and the Sparks held on to win a surprisingly tight game.
Two days later LA played the Stars again, and Beard opened up on McBride instead. Jefferson ended up with her most aggressive and effective game of the season, finally firing a little off the dribble and giving San Antonio a secondary scorer alongside McBride. San Antonio still lost, but that’s going to happen a lot to the Stars this year. They need to find the small victories where they can.
Obviously, most choices Agler has made so far this season have worked perfectly. The Sparks are 8-0, and most statistical measures have them with both the #1 offense and #1 defense in the WNBA. But it’s going to be interesting to see how Beard is used as the season goes along (and how dramatic the efforts to hide Toliver occasionally become). Fingers crossed that Beard stays this healthy and allows us to see how it plays out over 34 games (and the playoffs). Right now, with how Brittney Griner’s opened up the season, you could make a strong argument that Beard is the leader for Defensive Player of the Year.
7. Negative Stat of the Week
Starting on the negative side this time, because the Mercury continue to aggravate me. They made a lineup switch this week to try to wake themselves up, replacing DeWanna Bonner with Sonja Petrovic, and it kinda worked. They produced easily their best performance of the year so far against Minnesota, albeit in a game the Lynx ultimately came back to win. The Mercury then took care of poor San Antonio last night (albeit with some of the same defensive issues that have plagued them all season). But Phoenix continue to be an awful rebounding team, and there’s no good reason for it. They’re huge! They’re bigger than their opposition all over the floor. And it’s not like they’re constantly flying up the floor for fastbreak points any more, leaving only a player or two to battle for rebounds. Brittney Griner draws lots of attention for her poor rebounding, and it’s true, she’s awful at it for someone with her size and mobility. The fact that she’s constantly sliding over to contest or block shots is a mitigating factor, but she’s a poor rebounder even considering that. But it’s not just her. The whole team is terrible on the glass, and has been for years.
They’ve been particularly invisible this year on the offensive boards, which would be fine if they were doing something else instead. Some modern teams essentially give up on the concept of offensive rebounding in favour of getting back quickly to prevent transition chances and set up their defense. But Phoenix’s transition defense has been embarrassing on many occasions this year. You have to do one or the other. Or some of both. No rebounds and no transition defense is just pitiful.
8. Positive Stat of the Week
Emma Meesseman is shooting 55% from the field, has upped her scoring average by three points per game, and it doesn’t even feel like she’s really got going yet this season. Oh, and she just turned 23. It would be lovely to see a little more of a killer instinct – she just doesn’t seem to have that innate drive to dominate games when necessary that the true superstars have – but she remains one of the most quietly impressive young stars in the league. And I still think Mystics fans should be cheering “Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesse” in celebration of her. Along the lines of Green Bay Packers fans shouting “Kuuuuuuuuhn” every time John Kuhn did anything.
9. WNBA Hair of the Week
Because it’s only fair after Bonner got the treatment last week:
10. Point Guard Controversy in Chicago?
This is all the way down at #10 because I don’t expect it to be an issue, so I’ll address it in depth when and if it truly becomes one. Courtney Vandersloot sprained an ankle earlier this season, and Jamierra Faulkner stepped in to fill the hole and did a nice job. She’s scoring in double-digits at a ridiculous 56%, leading the league in assists, and even hitting an occasional outside shot to help spread the defense.
But the reason I doubt it’ll be an issue is because Vandersloot is still the better player. She manages the game better, making sure the ball keeps moving around the floor. She’s a significantly more solid defender. She doesn’t turn the ball over as much (still a problem for Faulkner). And she’s a leader on this team. Faulkner has certainly illustrated that she’s improved, and Pokey Chatman should have a lot more confidence in using her now and giving Vandersloot meaningful rest. They might even play next to each other in very select circumstances. But sometime soon I expect Vandersloot to get her starting position back, and the Sky lineup to revert to normal. This only becomes a controversy if Chatman lets it.
11. The New York play that everyone talked about this week
But then there was…
12. The play against New York that was just flat-out pretty
See you next week.